Kamala Harris is campaigning like she knows Black History Month is coming up. She announced her presidential bid on Martin Luther King Day. She’s breathlessly recounted how her parents met during the civil-rights movement. She played Tupac at her book signings, danced to Cardi B, and even joked about smoking joints on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But will these cultural cues be enough to win over black voters?
In the past, the winks of wokeness worked well for national black candidates like Barack Obama. Through his command of popular African-American culture, Obama subtly appealed to black voters without having to directly address anti-racist public policy and alienate moderate white voters. Obama’s black-charm offensive ranged from a soulful croon of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together to a Denzel Washington–like impersonation of Malcolm X where he told audiences they had been “hoodwinked” and “bamboozled.”
In spite of his cultural competency, Obama’s tenure oversaw an economic recovery that left many black families behind, and a proliferation of highly visible police brutality. Today, after both a long honeymoon and hangover with a charismatic black candidate, the code-switching playbook may be played out.
When Kamala Harris held her first presidential press conference at the her alma mater, Howard University, she hugged black students sporting black-and-gold Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity jackets and pink-and-green Alpha Kappa Alpha sweatshirts. She posed for pictures with beaming black women in their box braids and Afro-puffs. She shook hands with little curly-haired kids in Bison hoodies. Standing behind a placard modeled after Shirley Chisholm’s presidential design and in front of a plaque bearing Howard’s logo, Kamala conjured the imagery and legacy of the historically black University—a lineage that includes Toni Morrison, Thurgood Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston, Donny Hathaway, and more.
Yet all the pageantry doesn’t seem to be enough to distract from her policy record.
Earlier this month, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Intercept all ran articles criticizing her “regressive” leadership as California’s attorney general, her truancy policies that criminalized minority families, and her tough prosecutions of drug-related offenses. Moreover, the press has fueled the steady stream of social-media posts centered around the notion that “Kamala Harris is a cop.”
For months, black Twitter has dragged “Copmala Harris.” There are tweets of videos from A&E’s Beyond Scared Straight captioned “Kamala Harris visiting the black and brown folk she threw in prison”; tweets imagining Harris locking black people up while bopping to “Another One Bites the Dust”; tweets casting Kamala as your evil prosecutor auntie who sends your brother to the pen; tweets envisioning Kamala as Instagram celebrity @iamperez in shades and head wrap telling black people “Y’ALL ARE GOING TO JAIL. PERIOD!”
The barbs lobbed at Kamala from the press and social media couldn’t be further from the hero’s welcome Barack received in 2008. Back then, there wasn’t a critical interrogation of Obama’s credentials on racial equity. As Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ezra Klein note, Barack enjoyed an “almost spiritual connection” as the first serious black candidate, which allowed him to eschew issues of race with his base.
On the campaign trail, the grace and uncritical loyalty that black voters granted Obama let him be the “clean” candidate for white voters. He was uncontroversial—deferential even. He said his kids didn’t need affirmative action because of their privileged class position. He chided black people for letting their anger toward historic bigotry keep “us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our condition.” And in the first two years of his presidency, Obama spoke less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. He did all this while winning 96 percent of black voters in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012. Whenever Barack needed to shore up his black base, he could summon a sermon or a Jay-Z appearance quicker than you could say “Kwanzaa.”
Barack and Kamala are cut from the same cloth. They both were born at the tail end of the civil-rights movement. They both belong to a generation of center-left, black liberals once deemed “post-racial.” They both know how to comport themselves at a Howard homecoming—but also at a Hamptons fundraiser.
Like Obama, Kamala pulls from a deep well of wit, celebrity, and cultural relevance. A decade ago, a politician with this profile received all black peoples’ votes, with none of their criticism. But times have changed. Today, Kamala faces a mountain of critiques, some of them legitimate, others unfounded.
Running as a former prosecutor, her past as an instigator of mass incarceration gives many legitimate pause. At the same time, running as a black woman, her very existence has awaken gender resentment Obama never faced. This is new territory for American politics, and where her campaign goes from here is unclear. But after eight years of Obama, as the African American Studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes: A black face in a high place is no longer enough.
Commenting at the end of the Obama administration, Princeton’s Eddie Glaude Jr. railed against “damn black liberals” like Obama, “who is lauded for his celebration of black culture and his performance of black cultural cues, but whose policies leave much to be desired.” Because while little has changed in material terms for the vast majority of African Americans, black political life has metastasized far beyond the short-term goals of just electing a black president.
As black communities today still suffer the lasting effects of the Great Recession and rally under Black Lives Matter, voters are looking for candidates with policies designed to address the racial inequality they face. Police brutality. Mass incarceration. The wealth gap.
This is the more critical environment presidential hopefuls like Harris (and likely Cory Booker) are up against.
This new terrain perplexes white candidates as much as it does blacks. Long before Obama charmed the Oprah-hive, Clinton jazzed Arsenio Hall’s viewers. For decades, Democrats force fed this “symbols over substance” diet to black voters. Like political mimes, they relied on muted gestures, signals, and symbols to provide their most loyal patrons with the least accountable promises. But the jig is up.
After 2016’s low black voter turnout and increasingly pointed questions from black activists, signs of life have sprouted throughout the Democratic party. Elizabeth Warren launched her campaign with a video noting the racial wealth gap and addressed HBCU students on how “the government itself—has systematically discriminated against black people in this country.” Kirsten Gillibrand committed herself to “taking on institutional racism” two minutes into her presidential bid. Kamala Harris’s proposed LIFT Act has earned the endorsement of racial-stratification economist and reparations advocate Dr. William Darity. And political analysts believe addressing racial inequality may even be the new litmus test for the party.
The elevation of anti-racism among Democrats is heartening. Whether this new more explicit policy catering to black voters will be enough remains unknown. But the message is clear. This is not 2008. This is not 2012. Black voters aren’t seeking candidates who can Milly Rock down the Soul Train line or who can best impersonate their pastor; they are looking for the person with the policies that can help dismantle American racism.